The bombshells of WW1: women, words, and weapons

black maria
‘Plug Street’ (Ploegsteert) Village : An Unusual Compliment To One Of Our Airmen: A ‘Black Maria’ To Himself – Copyright: Imperial War Museums.

The naming of weapons runs through literature as a commonplace of heroism and of war. Arthur wields Excalibur while Beowulf uses the sword Hrunting against Grendel, and gains Naegling from  his lord Hygelac. J. R. R. Tolkien, Professor of Anglo-Saxon in Oxford from 1925, and a soldier in WW1 form 1915, appropriated this literary heritage in the Lord of the Rings, creating a range of expressive names and epithets within his text; modern fantasy fiction (and its online forms) has likewise taken over this convention with marked enthusiasm. That soldiers in WW1 should also refer to weapons by names or descriptive epithets can, in a number of ways, be placed in this same tradition. As earlier posts have explored, a range of identities – from Jack Johnsons, woolly bears, to coalboxes — can be mapped on to types of shell, drawing on a range of visual and other metaphors.
Even here, however, certain differences are plain. In Beowulf and the Hobbit alike, weapon names are strongly individualised; weapon and name are passed down within heroic culture, part of a process of collective memory and understanding. Names evoke respect and reverence, while descriptive attributes are positive, drawing attention to lineage, prowess, strength, and/or aesthetic qualities. Though there are exceptions, the creative appellations of WW1 are, in contrast, applied most memorably not to personal possessions but to the array of devices that the enemy deploys. The expressive potential of names is, by the same token, subversively redirected; German bombs, as we have seen, can be made to evoke the clouds of dusts emitted by coal boxes in domestic settings, or, as for Jack Johnsons, can draw on telling images of the ‘other’ which delegitimise in different ways. As the Words in Wartime archive often explores, the tone is that of irreverence, and lack of respect.

the British soldier is a difficult person to impress, or depress even, by immense shell foiled with high explosive, which detonate with terrific violence, and form craters large enough to act as graves for five horses. The German howitzer shells are 8 to 9 inches in calibre, and on impact they send up columns of greasy black smoke. On account of this they are irreverently dubbed “coal boxes”, “Black Marias,” or “Jack Johnsons” by the soldiers. Men who take things in this spirit are, it seems, likely to throw out the calculations based on loss of moral so carefully framed by the German military philosophers.

This post, however, will examine another strand within this pattern of naming and renaming – one by which female names can be appropriated, and women rendered quite literal bombshells. As in the extract above, for example, Jack Johnsons are accompanied by Black Marias (the terms are, in reality, synonyms, if aligned with different gender identities) while, in other patterns of evidence in the Words in War-Time archive, we can encounter Big Berthas, Sloppy Kates, or – in the Dardanelles in the spring and summer of 1915 – the questionable charms of Asiatic Alice or Asiatic Annie. Minnie as a sobriquet of the German minenwerfer offers another comparable form. Continue reading


Words, weapons, and WWI, No.I: Craters, Coal boxes and Jack Johnsons

The Big Crater © IWM (Art.IWM ART 3001)

Words, as the Scotsman explored in September 1914, played a role which, in a range of ways, often moved outside the merely representative. As other posts on this site have explored, language in WWI can, of course, easily reveal changes in material culture or the gradual extension (or restriction) of meaning in response to particular events. Yet, as the Scotsman stressed, words, not least by strategic acts of renaming, could also be used to embody a stance of defiance and undaunted resistance, of opposition and deflected power. The range of familiar epithets which the German howitzer shells were to acquire across WWI offered an eloquent example. Coined in the trenches and widely seen as representative of the ‘slanguage’ which drew comment across the war years, the names and meanings  used in this respect would, at least verbally,  deliiberately undercut the power and intimidating effects of the missiles  launched against the Allied lines. As the Scotsman explained, for example, here just a few weeks into the war:

the British soldier is a difficult person to impress, or depress even, by immense shell filled with high explosive, which detonate with terrific violence, and form craters large enough to act as graves for five horses. The German howitzer shells are 8 to 9 inches in calibre, and on impact they send up columns of greasy black smoke (‘The German “Jack Johnsons”’, Scotsman 25 Sept 1914)

This passage contains a number of elements which were already highly resonant of time and place. Both crater and detonate, as Andrew Clark commented, drew on meanings which, if familiar across the autumn of 1914, had by no means been so before. A crater was an ‘excavation or cavity formed by the explosion of a mine; the funnel’ as the contemporary OED (in a section published in 1893) had explained, providing evidence from the Penny Cyclopaedia in 1839 (‘The dimensions of the crater or funnel formed by the explosion depend on the amount of the charge’; ‘The ratio between the diameter of the crater and the length of the line of least resistance’).** Yet, as in the extract from the Scotsman above, crater in WW1 would primarily signify the immense holes which shells made as they exploded. Meaning had moved on; encountering a convalescent sergeant on a train coming from Oxford in November 1914, Clark had been reliably informed that the larger shells created craters large enough to swallow a small cottage. The OED definition could seem particularly inadequate.
Detonate, as the Words in War-Time archive also confirms, presented other departures. In the OED as it then existed, detonate was a transitive verb meaning ‘To cause to explode with sudden loud report, in the act of chemical decomposition or combination’. This could seem equally out of place. ‘On Tuesday the enemy’s guns were active in the afternoon. It is believed that the bombardment was due to anger because two of our howitzer shells had detonated right in the enemy’s trenches, which was full of men’, as the Scotsman noted on Monday 12th October 1914. Surely detonate now meant ‘to explode’, Andrew Clark suggested alongside the range of extracts which he gathered up as relevant evidence of change.
Most significant, however, as the Scotsman article continued, was the disjunction which, in terms of language, came to be apparent between the ‘terrific violence’ of the howitzer shells – and the various verbal strategies which soldiers deployed in order to refer to them. They are, as it noted:

irreverently dubbed “coal boxes”, “Black Marias,” or “Jack Johnsons” by the soldiers. Men who take things in this spirit are, it seems, likely to throw out the calculations based on loss of moral so carefully framed by the German military philosophers.

Words, the Scotsman argued, could in such ways be seen as reflective of the wider psychology of war. Irreverence – and the deliberate mismatch of form and thing – could be precisely the point. As in the reassignment of howitzer shells to the diction of coal-boxes, a deliberate reductiveness (and diminution) was often at work. As the OED explained, a coal-box had hitherto been part of domestic diction, being used, as in Jonathan Swift’s Directions to Servants, to refer to a receptacle for coal as used within the home: ‘Leave a Payl of dirty Water, a Coal-box…and such other unsightly Things’, Swift had written in 1745. Relocated to WW1, the coal-boxes which assailed the Allies were deemed equally ‘unsightly’, not least in terms of their ‘greasy black smoke’ which shells of this kind emit upon impact. As another extract in the Words in War-Time archive confirms:

These German shells are 90lbs., and on account of their dense black smoke they have been christened “Coal Boxes.” Everyone says, “Mind the coal-box.” They do dreadful damage’’ (Evening News, 9 October 1914)

Such uses relied, in effect, on a form of metaphorical transfer; the soot emitted by domestic coal-boxes when the latter were placed roughly upon the ground is made comically analogous to the shells and their intentionally devastating effects. As in other aspects of trench slang, appellations of this kind are deliberately transgressive — confirming, too, a refusal to submit (quite literally) to German terms.
Jack Johnsons were similar. As the Evening News explained in January 1915, they denoted, in essence, larger types of the same weapon (‘The shells of the 8.27 in. and 11.2 in. howitzers are indiscriminately termed “Jack Johnsons,” “Black Marias,” and “Portmanteaux”’). In this instance, however, renaming drew on the American boxer who was the world heavyweight champion in 1914 – and whose punch was legendary. Here, too, however, visual analogy played a part; Johnson’s nickname was ‘The Big Smoke’ (the fact that Johnson was black was, as the Daily Express explained in a later extract in the archive, not entirely immaterial). As Adrian Gregory explains in a comment below, the fact that Johnson was scheduled in 1914 to fight a French opponent had an obvious pertinence too.

As a number of news articles note, however,  the real significance of verbal play of this kind lay in its evocative symbiosis of word, meaning, and attitude. As the Evening News commented, for example, while Kaiser Wilhelm II had characterised  the British Expeditionary Force as a ‘contemptible little army’, contempt could easily be reappropriated — and redirected:

The strong point of our “contemptible little Army” has all along been its refusal to be terrified either by the weight of numbers or the use of the most terrible engines of destruction that have ever been employed in warfare. The shells of the new large calibre Krupp howitzer were to strike terror into the hearts of the “treacherous” British. Instead the “Jack Johnsons” of the Fatherland have been treated by our troops with regrettable levity, and though they have done their work effectively enough in a material sense, our moral has remained unaffected (Evening News Thurs 1 October 1914)

Here, if the ‘regrettable levity’ of the Allies receives comment, it is, of course, entirely ironic. Instead levity is commended while the resulting expressions symbolise the undaunted spirit with which conflict was faced. Words – and the power to name – can, the Evening News argued, importantly  deflect and destabilize the kind of terror which had been intended. Moral (MnE morale) remained intact.

** crater. A definition ‘the cavity formed by the explosion of a shell’ was added in the Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary which was published in 1933. It tracked usage back to 1855 and the conflict of the Sebastopol campaign, as well as adding later examples from WWI, dating from December 1914 onwards. Evidence from October 1914 was added later, though Clark’s evidence on crater from September 1914 still remains of interest. See “crater, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2014. Web. 12 January 2015.